The operation of the facility is a step forward as the Southeast Asian country prepares for a possible nuclear new-build programme that is supported by president Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The 1 MW open pool general-purpose PRR-1 research reactor reached criticality in August 1963. In 1984, PNRI decided to convert and upgrade the reactor into a 3 MW Triga Mark III reactor. It was shut down in 1988, leaving the country with no operating nuclear facility for the past 34 years.
In 2014, a proposal was accepted to use fuel rods from PRR-1 for training and education. The fuel is a uranium-zirconium hydride alloy manufactured by General Atomics of the US, which built the PRR-1. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been supporting the project through a series of technical cooperation projects.
In June, the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) loaded 44 nuclear fuel rods into the core of the newly constructed Sater tank. The fuel rods had been previously stored unused for more than 30 years.
The new PRR-1 Sater facility, at the PRR-1 building in Quezon City, an area of the capital Metro Manila, will remain in a subcritical state, but its operation is a milestone for the southeast Asian country because it will provide significant support in re-establishing nuclear capabilities.
Facility Will Support New Nuclear Courses
The IAEA said subcritical assemblies such as PRR-1 Sater are valuable educational and research tools. It will support recently launched nuclear programmes at the University of the Philippines Diliman and Mapua University. In the field of research, PRR-1 Sater will be used for reactor physics experiments, as well as a demonstration facility for neutron irradiation and neutron activation analysis.
PRR-1 Sater is expected to be a training reactor for research reactor operators, regulators and users. “The facility is projected to open the whole scientific field of reactor physics and engineering for Filipinos and to pave the way for the Philippines to strengthen its niche in the nuclear field,” said Alvie Asuncion-Astronomo, associate scientist and former head of PNRI’s nuclear reactor operations section.
A presidential executive order from earlier this year outlines the government's position for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the Philippines' energy mix. That order was published under the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte, but his successor, Marcos, has also said he supports new nuclear.
The Philippines built a nuclear power plant at Bataan, northwest of Manila, in the late 1970s, but the project was stopped in 1986 and fuel was not loaded into it.